The Symbolic Power Of The Afro And The Natural Hair Renaissance

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The Symbolic Power Of The Afro And The Natural Hair Renaissance

Words by Ms Fedora Abu

1 October 2020

Few hairstyles carry quite as much historical weight as the afro. “The afro is a symbol of diasporic resistance, a rejection of an imposed value system,” writes Ms Emma Dabiri in her book Don’t Touch My Hair. “Sporting an afro is a defiant up-yours to such a system.” In her writing, the Irish-Nigerian academic and broadcaster – herself the proud owner of a glorious head of hair – unpicks topics such as slavery, colonialism and cultural appropriation through the framework of afro hair. From the plantations of Kentucky to modern-day Pretoria, she explains how the hair that grows from black people’s heads has rarely been just that.

Wearing an afro – that is to say loose, unmanipulated and free of chemical processing – wasn’t really a political statement until the civil rights era. During the 1960s, the Black Power movement’s most prominent faces (Ms Angela Davis, Mr Huey P Newton) were often framed by a crown of afro hair. African-Americans at the time were encouraged to embrace their natural features and hair, in particular, was imbued with symbolic power. “We were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this,” Black Panther member and law professor Ms Kathleen Cleaver famously declared. “The reason for it is a new awareness among black people that their own natural appearance is beautiful.”

Decades later, traditional afro hairstyles are still subject to discrimination, policed in schools and deemed unprofessional in corporate settings. Despite this, the past 10 or so years have given rise to a sort of natural hair renaissance. Among women, relaxers and weaves have been ditched for protective styles and twist-outs. Men, too, are embracing their natural texture. Jay-Z, formerly a diehard fan of the closely shorn look, now rocks Mr Jean-Michel Basquiat-style dreadlocks and looks all the more stylish for it.

Still, it’s the classic afro, worn out and proud, that seems to provoke the biggest reaction – for the most part, calls for it to be trimmed, tidied, tamed. And yet, compared with more intricate styles, this look requires a degree of attention that belies its effortless appearance. For many black men, the lockdown period has allowed to them to become better acquainted with their afros and perhaps even consider ditching the clippers altogether. To encourage them on their journey, and in celebration of Black History Month in the UK, we’ve selected seven men whose ’dos might serve as inspiration.

01. Mr Sheku Kanneh-Mason

On a sunny May afternoon in 2018, within the walls of St George’s Chapel in Windsor, Mr Sheku Kanneh-Mason went from rising star on the British classical music scene to #cellobae, a global sensation. The occasion was, of course, the wedding of Prince Harry and Ms Meghan Markle, for which the Nottingham-born cellist had been picked to perform. While a mixed-race woman marrying into the royal family was always going to break tradition, few anticipated the degree to which the wedding would become a display of black culture – and black hair. Members of The Kingdom Choir were adorned with braids, twists and cornrows. Mother-of-the-bride Ms Doria Ragland styled her locs in a ponytail. During the signing of the register, Mr Kanneh-Mason performed three pieces, sporting his trademark afro, and in doing so, blazed a trail through Britain’s oldest, whitest institutions. His afro, meanwhile, has helped inadvertently challenge outdated ideas around race and respectability.

02. Mr André Benjamin

Given André 3000’s penchant for headgear, you could easily forget he has some of the best hair in hip-hop. In the 1990s and 2000s, when the OutKast rapper wasn’t sporting a piece from his impressive collection of beanies, berets and turbans, he and his bandmate Big Boi were often as experimental with their hairstyles as they were with their sound. Of the many looks that spring to mind, Mr Benjamin’s glossy, pin-straight locks in the “Hey Ya” video might be his most famous, but it’s his fluffed-out afro in the video for “So Fresh, So Clean” that comes a close second. If a full-time return to music isn’t on the cards, might we suggest a haircare line as a lucrative next act?

03. Mr George Berry

Long before Messrs David James and David Beckham were racking up eye-catching hairstyles while on duty with the England team, Welsh footballer Mr George Berry’s perfectly shaped afro turned him into an unwitting style icon. In the early 1980s, the first black Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City player was known both for his skills as a centre-back and his larger-than-life haircut, often paired with an equally luscious beard and infectious grin. It’s not uncommon for footballers, sartorially stifled by their kits when on the pitch, to use their hair to display their personalities – think Mr Mario Balotelli’s colourful mohawks or Mr Héctor Bellerín’s man bun. Few, however, have made it look quite as wholesome and carefree as Mr Berry did back in the day.

04. Questlove

In a 2015 interview with i-D magazine, Roots drummer Questlove admitted that working in TV had made him reevaluate his once neglectful approach to his afro. Nowadays, his pre-Tonight Show routine involves having his hair conditioned, shampooed and oiled, with a scalp massage thrown in for good measure. Perhaps this newfound appreciation for grooming is why the musician is never without his afro pick, as much a stylish accessory as a tool for on-the-go fluffing. Questlove certainly isn’t the first to keep his comb handy. The look became a popular symbol of shared identity in the 1970s, while the afro comb itself was the subject of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, its origins traced back more than 5,000 years to Ancient Egypt. To the uninformed eye, Questlove’s comb might seem like an affectation, but it speaks to an often overlooked history.

05. Mr Richard Ayoade

To understand how integral Mr Richard Ayoade’s rather underrated afro is to his personal style, try picturing him without it. It’s just not the same, right? From his early days in The IT Crowd, the quirky British comedian and actor has maintained a signature look of thick-rimmed spectacles, colourful suits and a mop of curly hair. In 2014, Mr Ayoade’s hair became the subject of a rather cringe-inducing moment on The Graham Norton Show when a certain American actress thought it appropriate to ruffle his afro while discussing the benefits of, ahem, ditching bikini waxes. Mr Ayoade, ever the Englishman, let his facial expressions do all the talking. Unlike the more preened hairdos on this list, Mr Ayoade’s tousled afro suggests a devil-may-care attitude. Behind the scenes, however, we suspect there’s a good deal of teasing (and product) to ensure it looks so perfectly undone.

06. Mr Colin Kaepernick

What was it about Mr Colin Kaepernick kneeling that made for such a powerful image? Is it fair to say that the moment might not have been so striking were it not for his signature afro? Although many black athletes in recent years have used their platform to advocate for Black Lives Matter, none has paid as steep a price as the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. For every year he remains unsigned, his afro takes on greater meaning, not merely a hairstyle but rather an emblem of resistance, a refusal to back down. “The first thing we got to get Colin to do is cut his hair,” said former NFL player Mr Michael Vick in 2017, when, during the height of the controversy, he suggested Mr Kaepernick might improve his chances of being hired with a “clean cut”. As of 2020, he’s politely ignored the advice.

07. Mr Donald Glover

Hollywood’s Renaissance man is no stranger to red-carpet dressing, what with all those Grammy, Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Yet exactly how is it that he pulls off such brightly coloured Gucci tuxedos and even makes them look like loungewear? The hair certainly has something to do with it. Whether it’s a full afro worn with a side parting and beard or a shorter demi ’fro paired with a little stubble, Mr Donald Glover’s hair always has a natural lived-in shape that means, even in a bow tie, he’s never too trussed up. For those hoping to emulate the look, the artist’s go-to groomer, Ms Erica Sauer, is known to use Baxter of California pomade and a hairdryer. The required sprezzatura, however, is all Mr Glover’s own.